One of the all-time classic military/police/defense handguns, the 1911 .45 is more popular today than ever. For concealed carry, a growing number of people prefer something small. The miniaturization of the 1911 .45, unfortunately, has not been without its stumbling blocks.
In 1911, the U.S. military adopted the eponymous Colt pistol just as John Moses Browning designed it. With its 5-inch barrel/slide configuration, it developed an enviable reputation for reliability until 1950, when Colt introduced the first shortened and lightened version, the Commander. It featured a full-size grip frame and took the standard magazine, but the barrel and slide were 0.75 inches shorter. Reducing the stroke length caused some problems, however. Jeff Cooper, the high priest of the 1911 .45, recommended the Commander for convenient concealed carry but suggested the 5-inch-barreled Government Model for duty use. His contemporary, Ray Chapman, who also made the 1911 .45 his signature gun, commented that he found the 5-inch-barreled version more reliable than the 4.25-inch-barreled models. Colt tweaked the Commander, and by the 1980s it squared away any reliability problems with the 4.25-inch-barreled .45s.
In 1972, the U.S. Army officially adopted the General Officer’s Pistol, a Government Model 1911 .45 with a radically shortened barrel and butt. Crafted and maintained by master armorers and designed to run with only easy-feeding GI hardball ammunition, these pistols were rarely shot and didn’t seem to cause problems. Soon gunsmiths like Armand Swenson began making similar guns; they got them to work reasonably well, but none were famous for accuracy compared to larger .45s.
Colt introduced its Officer’s ACP, the factory answer to the Swenson Bobcat and the Army’s General Officer’s Pistol, in 1985. It was a success commercially but not mechanically. Its accuracy was mediocre at best; these 3.5-inch-barreled guns jammed often with anything but round-nose, full-metal-jacket (FMJ) ammo and Remington jacketed hollow points (JHPs). And they were known to break.
In 1998, Colt introduced the Concealed Carry Officer’s (CCO) pistol, which is basically a Commander barrel/slide as-sembly atop a short Officer’s ACP frame. I fell in love with it, but the public did not; it was only manufactured for a few years. Since then, a custom Gunsite CCO was built by Colt on special order, Wiley Clapp and others called for the CCO to be reintroduced, and many other makers went with the concept.
Then, in 2000, Colt introduced the Defender. Its barrel is half an inch shorter than the troubled Officer’s, at 3 inches, and it amazes knowledgeable 1911 users by working well! Industry scuttlebutt at the time held that the Defender worked because 1911 genius Bill Laugh-ridge of Cylinder & Slide was retained by Colt to supervise the Defender’s design. His custom-made Adventurer pistol had, years before, become the first reliable 3-inch-barreled 1911 .45, and what he had learned was carried over into the Colt Defender line.
Back in 1999 or so, just before the Defender was introduced, Colt’s Joe Cartabona came up to a Lethal Force Institute class I was teaching in New Hampshire to host a focus group on forthcoming new Colt products. We noticed that the prototype Defenders were all way off in their elevation; the company was putting on front sights of the wrong height. To Colt’s great credit, as soon as the company learned of this it held the production line and put proper front sights on those early Defenders before they were shipped out for sale to customers. That’s a corporate responsibility feather in Colt’s cap, in my book.
With an unloaded weight of 24 ounces, its short 3-inch barrel and a short butt, the Defender makes for a compact package. The beavertail grip has a ridge down the center of its spine to guarantee the grip safety will be depressed even with the thumb riding the manual safety. This is a concern because having the thumb in this position pulls the web of the hand slightly back from the grip safety, and Colt was wise to effectively address it in the design.
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Retaining the short butt of the Officer’s model, maximum concealment is gained with the flush-fitting floorplate of the original Officer’s six-round magazine, or the improved generation from Colt with a McCormick-style follower allowing a seventh cartridge in the magazine, bring-ing the total round count up to eight. As an aside, I am partial to Wilson Combat seven-round magazines for these short-butt 1911 .45s. They hold seven rounds thanks to a very slightly extended bottom pad, which also allows more positive seating during reloads.
These guns will take longer 1911 .45 magazines, but there’s one caveat: If a long mag is rammed into place hard with the pistol in slide-lock, it can overtravel and lock up the pistol. Most of us who regularly carry “short-handle” 1911s either use Officer’s length magazines or the Wilson eight-rounder, which has a stop on it to prevent overtravel. However, that stud will keep those magazines from seating in a full-size 1911, so we have to be careful not to get them mixed up.
The Defender is a Series 80 gun, which means that the internal passive firing-pin safety is retained on this handgun. I think that’s important. 1911s with unsecured firing pins discharging when dropped due to inertia is not an urban myth. I just learned of another recent case of it happening with another brand. The Series 80 system has always been an effective preventative for that.
The Defender has fixed, three-dot Novak Low Mount Carry sights. Today’s models are slightly lower in profile than when the pistol was first introduced.
The early ones had Hogue wraparound rubber grips, which seem incongruous at first on a concealment gun, but are welcomed by many because they help to hold the wee beast against sometimes-snappy .45 recoil. I see the same Hogues are on a new production Defender at my local gun shop. However, Tony Landenwich, who won top shot using a Defender during a recent MAG-40 class, apparently had standard stocks on his gun when he bought it, and put on a Hogue wraparound grip out of preference. You’ll find a wide variety of optional stocks to fit these small 1911s; the dimensions have long since been standardized.
The finish is decent, with some polish on the slide and a flatter gray color to the aluminum frame. Given that the Defender is designed for concealed carry, appearances matter less than dimension and weight to most buyers.
The trigger pull was extremely con-sistent. On my Lyman trigger pull gauge from Brownells, the readout never varied more than 2 ounces, and the average pull weight was 5.63 pounds. Having created and defined the 1911 pistol, produced them longer than anyone else, and made more of them than any other entity, it should be no surprise that Colt has learned how to make 1911 triggers.
My test gun’s trigger pull character-istics were excellent. There is a very short, light take-up and then a short, smooth movement that is best described as a “roll.” The release comes by surprise—the marksman’s ideal. Obviously, it is assumed that you intended to pull the trigger and it’s not the shot that is the surprise, but the actual fraction of a second in which in occurs, so you don’t anticipate the sear release and jerk the trigger. The configuration of the Defender’s trigger has changed a bit over the years, but not the smooth and consistent pull. It is, in short, an excellent “street trigger” for a 1911.
Due to schedule demands, I had to test the Colt Defender .45 on a gray and rainy day, but I was at least able to use the concrete bench and Matrix rest on my own range. Ammo from three different makers, all JHPs, encompassed the three most popular bullet weights in .45 ACP. Two were tailored expressly for stubby barrels like the 3-incher on the Defender.
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The lightest bullet was Remington’s 185-grain Express JHP. This old-school “cup and core” bullet has been updated over the years and is normally quite accurate. It wasn’t the little Colt’s favorite, though. It grouped correct for elevation but a bit left for windage, in a pattern that measured 4.65 inches high but only about 2.25 inches wide. The best three-shot group measured a more promising 2.45 inches. It’s customary today to refer to a 4-inch group at the 25-yard distance we were using as the outer limit for “acceptable service pistol accuracy.” However, this standard is generally and mercifully relaxed for very-short-barrel pistols such as this one.
For the traditional 230-grain .45 ACP loading, I chose Speer’s Short Barrel Gold Dot, engineered by Ernest Durham and his team at Speer expressly for just what its name implies: optimum expansion at the reduced velocity that is always the price of the convenient size of a very-short-barreled .45. Interestingly, this load centered exactly where the sights were for both elevation and windage at 25 yards. The group measured 3.55 inches for all five hits, and the best three clustered into 1.45 inches. Two of the bullet holes even nailed the 2-inch Caldwell Orange Peel aiming dot from 75 feet.
The star of the show was the middleweight bullet. A weight of 200 grains was said to be John Browning’s original specification for the .45 ACP cartridge, and there are more than a few shooters who think it’s the optimum with today’s hollow points. Some time ago, Wilson Combat introduced a line of top-quality ammunition under its own brand, including a 200-grain Hornady XTP JHP, which the company advertises as being “optimized for compacts,” though curiously it lists its nominal velocity (975 fps) as coming from a 5-inch barrel. I’d be expecting 900 fps or less from a barrel 2 inches shorter.
The group this pistol delivered with the Wilson ammunition validated “optimized for compacts” as truth in advertising.
All five shots grouped into 1.65 inches, and the best three clustered into 0.7 inches. If you’re familiar with the accuracy levels of short-barrel 1911 .45s, you know that this is nothing less than amazing precision. This tight little knot of bullet holes was about 2.75 inches below the 2-inch Caldwell aiming dot I was six-o’clocking with a post-in-notch sight picture. The shots were dead-center for windage. I figure if I aimed with the white dots, which sit below the top edges of the sights, a three-dot sight picture would have put the group spot on for elevation, too.
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I’ve seen quite a few Defenders go through my school over the years. I don’t recall any that presented functioning problemsto their shooters unless crappy handloads that would have choked any gun were in play. To assess the reliability of a shooting platform, we can take a hint from the old Ford advertisement and “ask the man who owns one.” So I asked Tony Landenwich, the man who won top shot at the MAG-40 class I mentioned earlier in this article. “I bought this gun new a year or so ago,” he told me, “and it’s been my daily carry gun ever since except for days when my hip is really bothering me and I have to go to a .380. I work at a gun shop with an attached shooting range, so I get to practice frequently, and I would guess I have between 5,000 and 6,000 rounds through my Defender. In all that time I’ve only had one malfunction, a failure to feed. I have some nerve damage from a neck injury, and occasionally it makes my hand go numb. I was in that condition that day, and I believe that I simply limp-wristed the Defender and caused the malfunction myself.”
Famed firearms instructor and pistol champion Marty Hayes runs the Firearms Academy of Seattle; he alternates between 1911 and Glock platforms. Marty has had his Colt Defender for more than 10 years, bought new. He estimates running a couple of thousand rounds through it and does not recall a single malfunction. He regularly teaches with it, and was in fact teaching with it the weekend I spoke with him. “It has always been as accurate as I am,” he says. He generally carries it with 185-grain CorBon or Hornady Critical Defense ammunition. “I like the lighter bullet because of the velocity in the short barrel,” he says. “Last hunting season, I shot a deer with my rifle, and it needed a coup de grace from a spine shot. I dispatched it with a 185-grain Critical Defense bullet to the head. I was happy with the performance of the Critical Defense load. It expanded well, with some corollary fragmentation.”
Hayes isn’t the only one who likes a light, fast bullet in a short-barrel .45 ACP. Back in the day, aware of the distinct drop-off in velocity and resultant bullet performance as barrels get shorter, with less space to burn powder and build pressure, I chronographed 185-grain CorBon +P ammunition out of a standard 5-inch-barreled gun, and then a 3.5- inch-barred .45. Out of the full-size gun, I was getting the factory-stated 1,150-fps velocity of the hot load. Out of the short-barrel gun, it was still traveling at about 1,070 fps. By contrast, a standard-pressure 185-grain load like the Silvertip was spec’d for 1,000 fps out of a 5-inch barrel, and often delivering less. The +P loadings enhance recoil, of course, but it’s nothing a trained and committed shooter can’t handle.
Many firearms instructors and even gunsmiths will tell you to avoid very-short-barrel 1911 pistols because they don’t cycle as reliably as their larger forebears. For the most part, I would agree with that. However, for a good 14 years now, the Colt Defender has proven to be the exception to this rule.
I’m still more likely to carry one of my CCO pistols, which I’ve always preferred to the Defender size, or my CCO-like Nighthawk T3. I get a better sight radius and higher velocity, and while the CCO motif gives me the same concealment at the butt as the Defender, its desirable 4.25-inch barrel/slide hides perfectly in an inside-the-waistband holster for me, so the 3-inch-barreled Defender does not help me in that regard. However, I’m clearly in the minority: The CCO has been out of production for quite some time, and the Defender has remained in the Colt catalog as a steady, customer-satisfying seller since its introduction in 2000.
Uncommonly reliable and surprisingly accurate, the Colt Defender would be at the very top of my list of short-barrel, short-butt 1911 .45 pistols. It carries a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $1,098. Given the performance I’ve seen from the Colt Defender over the years, I think it’s worth every penny.
For more information on the Defender, visit colt.com or call 800-962-2658.
Colt Defender .45 ACP Specifications:
* Caliber: .45 ACP
* Barrel: 3 inches
* OA Length: 6.75 inches
* Weight: 24 ounces (empty)
* Grips: Rubber
* Sights: Novak Low Mount Carry
* Action: SA
* Finish: Stainless slide, Cerakote frame
* Capacity: 7+1
* MSRP: $1,098
Colt Defender .45 ACP Performance:
* Remington 185 Express JHP – 4.65
* Speer 230 Short Barrel Gold Dot – 3.55
* Wilson Combat 200 Hornady XTP JHP – 1.65
* Bullet weight measured in grains, and accuracy in inches for best five-shot groups at 25 yards.
This article was originally published in COMPLETE BOOK OF HANDGUNS 2014. Subscription is available in print and digital editions below.